If you’ve ever spent an evening skimming Netflix without deciding on a movie to watch, you’ve probably thought to yourself, “There is nothing good on Netflix.”
And there isn’t, or at least it appears that way after you’ve passed up dozens of C-list horror flicks and crummy crime dramas before deciding to try your luck in Hulu’s anime catalog. With the overwhelming number of options available in today’s streaming environment, sometimes it can be hard to find the good stuff.
With this struggle in mind, Netflix is attempting to help users decide what they want to watch more easily. In April, Netflix will adopt a new ratings system, in which the current five-star scale will make way for a thumbs-up-thumbs-down system.
On the surface, the new scale might seem like a less precise way to measure what viewers like. Up and down are binary ratings, while five stars can measure one’s enjoyment with greater accuracy. The logistics explain themselves: five options can account for a greater range of enjoyment than two. To reduce something to a binary opinion is to remove the nuance inherent to a five-star system, the skeptic would argue.
However, a thumb up or down is simpler, said Netflix vice president of Product Innovation Todd Yellin in a press briefing, and thus leads to more ratings than the five-star scale. More ratings mean more data and better recommendations from Netflix search algorithms, even if the data driving the algorithms is less granular. But while obtaining more user data might be the factor driving the decision, it’s not the most interesting tidbit to come from the release.
Apparently, when presented with a five-star system, people tend to rate Netflix programs for the rest of the global Netflix audience rather than for themselves. That means a majority of ratings aren’t personal opinion. Rather, they’re performative, objective evaluations. The switch to a thumbs up-down system aims to make it implicit that ratings are meant to improve your own Netflix experience rather than others’.
That said, it’s hard to believe that the star rating encourages our inner armchair critic. Plenty of Netflix ratings buck the critical consensus. “NCIS” currently has a rating slightly greater than four stars, and by most people’s accounts, it sucks. Indie drama “Blue Is the Warmest Color” should probably sit close to five stars, because it originally drew masses of critical attention and maintains a Rotten Tomatoes 91 percent fresh rating. According to Netflix, it’s worthy of three stars and is thus slightly less of an artistic achievement than “Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny,” which has four stars and a scene in which Jack Black does push-ups with his penis.
Takes from prominent media outlets seem to either support Netflix’s ratings change because it removes an unintuitive feature from the user interface or condemn it for reducing critical opinion to a simple binary. Though they have opposing views, neither really considers the shortcomings and strengths of Netflix’s current ratings system to make a case. Instead, opinions on the value of this change have tended to look five or ten years down the line at not just the future of streaming, but the future of pop criticism. I’ve done the same, and I’ve seen two possible outcomes.
The first option is with the glut of entertainment available on streaming services, critical guidance— be it from other users or professional critics— will become as essential as TV Guide was in the 1980s to steer us through all the available choices. In this future, Netflix’s rating system will naturally carry more weight than it does now. Because we will need someone else to tell us what’s good, a five-star rating where we rate less for ourselves and more for each other makes sense.
The second option takes into account that Netflix’s algorithms are so advanced that they can recommend us almost exactly what we want, and we will be able to stream nearly anything for a single low, monthly subscription fee.
We won’t ever need human guidance. With virtually no monetary cost associated with watching something, little consequence for sampling whatever we wish and a good algorithm steering us, we can all be our own critics rather than each other’s. The only audience we need review for is ourselves and our algorithm. A personal thumb up or thumb down makes sense in this future.
You might want to believe in the first. Netflix probably believes in the second. As long as I can choose to watch “Blue is the Warmest Color” and “Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny,” I’ll give both systems a thumbs up for now.